Edvard Munch was a pioneer Symbolist and Expressionist painter and printmaker, famous for exploring themes of masculine interiority, turmoil, and alienation. He developed new subjects of psychological intensity, exploring universal themes of sexual jealousy and desire and expressing traumatisation from family deaths, tuberculosis, and mental illness. Remarkably prolific, Munch was enormously influential on the German Expressionists.Read More
The son of a strict, religiously zealous doctor, Munch was raised in Oslo, where he witnessed much personal tragedy. In 1879 he went to a technical collage to become an engineer, excelling in science and maths, but he left in 1881 to begin studying at the Royal School of Art and Design. There Munch was encouraged by Hans Jæger the nihilist bohemian writer and philosopher to focus on his own mental states. Taught by painter Christian Krohg and figure sculptor Julius Middelthun, Munch found he had a talent for figure drawing. His early paintings were influenced by Édouard Manet.
In the mid-1880s when Munch joined the Kristiania Bohème, a radical artist group promoted by Jæger, he exhibited The Sick Child in 1886 and attracted much vitriol. Jæger, in the local paper, was a staunch champion.
In 1889 Munch went to Belgium and France for two years. His visit to Paris was an eye-opener, for he was excited by the colour and composition of the prints and paintings of Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and was impressed by Gauguin's credo: 'Art is human work, not an imitation of Nature.'
Munch went to Paris originally to study drawing and painting with Léon Bonnat on a grant, but was soon bored.
Back in Oslo, Munch's painting ideas started to synthesise, and he explored varied brushstroke techniques, different palettes, and heavy outlines. His breakthrough with Melancholy (1891) was regarded by Krohg as the first ever Norwegian Symbolist painting. Munch had moved away from the Impressionism and naturalistic styles found in works like Inger on the Beach (1889).
In 1892 Munch's reputation was such that he was invited to exhibit in Berlin by the Union of Berlin Artists. He became controversial—the furore created a supportive breakaway art group named The Berlin Secession—and he enjoyed the notoriety. In Berlin he met the great Swedish playwright August Strindberg and other intellectuals. He spent four years there, and began to regularly attract German patrons. During this time, he produced The Scream (1893), Vampire (1893), and Puberty (1895).
In 1896 Munch moved back to Paris. The following year he returned to Norway, bringing The Mermaid (1896), a commission.
In his etchings and woodcuts Munch was initially influenced by Max Klinger and Gauguin, and his innovative images were much admired for their intensity, especially in Germany with the Expressionist group Die Brϋcke.
He also made experimental photographs, including blurred self-portraits, which he never exhibited.
In 1908 Munch had a breakdown from excessive production and alcohol, yet he soon recovered to eventually produce an enormous quantity of work. Over 1909—1916 Munch made a series of murals for Oslo University, which depicted pantheistic images of the sun. Influenced by Van Gogh, Munch also started to depict working class life. In 1916 he moved to Ekely, where he stayed until his death in 1944.
Munch continued to rework old themes of inner anguish and isolation under an overarching title of The Frieze of Life, obsessively exploring variations and using his memory to modify each turbulent image's emotional power. During World War II his art was declared by the Nazis to be 'degenerate', but most of it survived. Work from this period includes Death of Marat II (1907—1927) and Self Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940—1943).
Recent group exhibitions include Tracy Emin/Edvard Munch: Loneliness of the Soul, Royal Academy, London (2020).
Edvard Munch's work is included in various major collections, including MUNCH, Oslo; Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Rasmus Meyer Collection, KODE, Bergen; and Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.
John Hurrell | Ocula | 2021